Opponent preview: Southern California Trojans

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This entry concludes our 12-part series, profiling Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. Check out the rest of them with Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pitt, Western Michigan, Navy, Tulsa, Utah, and Army. I will now rest my forearms and hands in a cold-tub until game time.

The Overview:

There is no bigger game for the Irish than the season’s finale against Southern Cal. So much has happen to the Trojans since the day they beat the Irish last October. A season that opened with a 6-1 record came crashing down, with the Trojans splitting their final six games and falling far from their longtime perch atop the Pac-10. Then the fateful offseason that ended the Trojan dynasty — Pete Carroll exited Troy for the riches of the NFL, just before the guillotine of the NCAA came down on the neck of the football program. Joining Carroll outside of Heritage Hall was athletic director Mike Garrett, but not before Garrett handpicked Tennessee coach and former Carroll protege Lane Kiffin, who brought with him a staff filed with former Trojan coaches to replicate the previous regime. While the coaching staff is vintage Troy, the philosophy officially changed when new USC president Max Nikias forced Garrett into retirement and named former NBC announcer and one-time Trojan quarterback Pat Haden athletic director, and returned Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy.

The Trojan team the Irish face this year returns the most talent of any team on the schedule, but face a razor-thin margin for error, with their roster depleted to 57 players and a depth chart that’s scarily thin at multiple positions, including the offensive line. Still, it’s no secret that USC has owned Notre Dame of late, and the team the Irish will face in late November could be a scary team with nothing to lose, or a team ravaged by injury with little left to play for.   

Last time against the Irish:

With 13 minutes left in the game, the Irish trailed the Trojans by 20 points, and all the talk of Notre Dame being “back” was over. But once again, Notre Dame’s offense rose to the occasion, and behind Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate the Irish mounted a furious comeback. Playing without Michael Floyd (who dressed for the game), the Irish marched down the field in the games final seconds, and with one second left on the clock, Notre Dame had the ball on the Trojan four-yard line, and trailed by seven. Clausen had two options with the Trojans doubling-teaming Golden Tate, Duval Karama on the out-cut and Kyle Rudolph running the in-route behind him. He chose Kamara, who slipped, and the ball sailed to the turf, and the Irish’s fourth attempt to score from inside the ten yard was their last.

The Irish defense was again a major culprit, with the Trojans racking up 501 yards, and freshman quarterback Matt Barkley hitting wide open receivers for 380 yards, including 100 yard days by both tight end Anthony McCoy and wide receiver Damian Williams. Gary Gray came up with a clutch fourth quarter interception, but the Trojans’ first three drives of the second half all ended in touchdowns, and it was just too much for Charlie Weis’ squad to overcome. 

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents the Irish face this year, I rank USC the toughest game on the schedule.

      1. Southern California Trojans
      2. Utah Utes
      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Pitt Panthers
      7. Stanford Cardinal
      8. Purdue Boilermakers
      9. Navy Midshipmen
      10. Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
      11. Army Black Knights
      12. Western Michigan Broncos

Let’s make no mistake, the final two games on the Trojan schedule are their bowl games. If USC can beat Notre Dame on Thanksgiving weekend then beat USC UCLA at the Rose Bowl, the sting of sitting out bowl season won’t be anywhere near as harsh.

The Match-up:

Matt Barkley is back leading the Trojan offense, building off an impressive rookie campaign. He’ll lose primary target Damian Williams and tight end Anthony McCoy, but the receiving corp is littered with blue-chip talent like Brice Butler and Ronald Johnson. As usual, there will be plenty of running backs to chose from, with Allen Bradford and C.J. Gable getting the first crack and freshman phenom Dillon Baxter likely ready to contribute after a disciplinary suspension. The Trojans also have All-American fullback Stanley Havili sitting out the opener for a fight with a teammate, but he’ll be a versatile weapon at fullback. The offense will sink or swim on the play of the offensive line. There is talent there, but the depth is downright scary. Injuries could force USC to improvise, and there isn’t much room to freestyle with the current roster.

Defensively the Trojans should be an improved unit from last year, especially with the infusion of Monte Kiffin to coach. Defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron also has a reputation for getting the most out of his defensive line, and if he can keep guys like Nick Perry, Armond Armstead and Jurrell Casey healthy, this will be the strength of the defense. The linebackers have great depth, though they lack the top-end talent that’s been a staple of the Trojan ‘backers before them. The secondary needs to replace all four starters, though Shareece Wright is back after sitting out last season with off-the-field problems.

How the Irish will win:

Defensively, the Irish will find a way to win the line of scrimmage, and the offensive line the Trojans are starting is one of their weakest since the start of the Pete Carroll era. With the ability to get pressure on Barkley with four or five guys, the secondary can contain the big play and the mobile linebacking corp can stop a USC running game that lacks the star-power of the past. Offensively, the spread offense has given Pete Carroll and the Trojans fits, and they’ll be running the same defense under Orgeron and Kiffin, so expect the Irish to move the ball better than they have in the past. Even the strong defensive line won’t be as quick to rush the passer with Dayne Crist sitting five yards deep and getting the ball out of his hands quickly. Play a clean game and keep the turnovers and penalities in check, and the Irish will finally take down the Trojans, although one year too late to do it against Carroll.

How the Irish will lose:

It isn’t hard to figure out how the Trojans beat the Irish. They’ve done it the past eight years, each time a bit different than the others. There’s plenty of skill on the Troja
n roster and the front-four
of USC could be a mismatch with the Irish offensive line. Matt Barkley has already been called the “next one” for the Trojans, and if a few offensive weapons emerge, they could become an explosive offensive team. If you throw out last season, the Trojans always seem to play their best football down the stretch, and with the Irish coming to town for the last game of the year in the Coliseum, you know the Trojans will be ready to fight.

Gut Feeling:

This game depends on what USC team walks out of the tunnel. If it’s the motivated, chip-on-their-shoulders Trojans, then it’s a coin-flip game where the Trojans will likely — and rightly — be favored. But if the last year showed us anything, between the cracked veneer of the Carroll era and the NCAA sanctions, this program is starting back at zero. It’s hard to predict what type of program the Trojans will be under Lane Kiffin, just like it’s difficult to tell what the Irish will turn out to be under Brian Kelly. The best part is, we’ll find out in a few days…

 

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.